September 1, 2005

Reflections on Chafee, Laffey, Party Politics & the Future of Rhode Island

The many comments in response to recent postings such as:

Insanity brought on by Laffey-phobia
Chafee Power Play by the National Republican Party?
Laffey, Chafee, Charlie, and the Outsiders
National Republican Contributions to RI
Laffey and the Lieutenant Governorship
Senator Chafee can settle the $500,000 Question
Achorn's Wisdom on Chafee/Laffey - What's Right I
Achorn's Wisdom on Chafee/Laffey - What's Right II

have confirmed that passions run high on the question of whether Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey should run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Lincoln Chafee.

I believe the question is a proxy for the more strategic question about what direction the Republican Party should take in Rhode Island. That leads to an even more significant question about what should be the appropriate response to the failing political status quo in our state. There are many subcurrents to this latter question and elaborating on them - and relating them to the Laffey/Chafee debate - is the purpose of this posting. These two strategic questions should be the focus of the public debate, not the posturing within a largely irrelevant state political party.


Many of us consider the crossing guard debacle, first brought to the public's attention by Mayor Laffey, to be the galvanizing and defining event that showed the embedded political corruption here in Rhode Island. For that effort, I tip my hat to the Mayor and believe all residents owe him a debt of gratitude.

Some people claim the Mayor's style is too aggressive. I doubt anyone would disagree that his is an aggressive style. But that is not the point.

The real question is whether his style has been an appropriate response to the situation at hand when the political environment consists of a mix of spineless politicians and bureaucrats facing off against powerful public sector union demands.

During and since my time on the East Greenwich School Committee, I have seen how willing the teachers' union is to play power games to win outlandish compensation terms - even if they have to mislead residents and make our children suffer to achieve that end.

The problem across Rhode Island is that these public sector unions are not reasonable people and cannot be dealt with anything less than blunt words and actions. We are now paying the price for years of accommodation to them: An outrageous tax burden on all Rhode Island residents.

But there is a larger issue of fairness and justice at stake here:

...this debate is about more than current taxation levels and today's family budgets. It is about freedom and opportunity for all -- and family budgets in the future. The greatness of our country is that people can live the American dream through the power of education and hard work.

High taxation and mediocre public education create a disincentive for new-business formation in Rhode Island. That means fewer new jobs, and less of a chance for working people to realize the American dream. It also means people have an economic incentive to leave the state -- and the ones who can afford to do so will continue to leave.

Unfortunately, the ones who cannot afford to leave are the people who can least afford the crushing blow of high taxation and mediocre education. The status quo dooms these families to an ongoing decline in their standard of living. That is unjust.

The unions have political power on their side today. They will, no doubt, win some short-term battles. But, like all those clinging to untenable economic models, they are on the wrong side of history and will lose the war over time. The only question is how much economic pain they will inflict on the state's residents along the way.

We are at a crossroads in Rhode Island. If we tackle issues now, a turnaround with only some pain is possible. If we delay, we will doom multiple generations of working families and retirees to further tax hell and a reduction in their standard of living. That is wrong.

These are fundamental issues that get to the heart of what direction our state will go in the future. Will young people be able to realize the American Dream if they stay in Rhode Island? Will retirees be able to enjoy the fruits of their labors and have an adequate lifestyle in their twilight years?

Since the public sector suffers from misguided incentives due to a lack of market forces, the bold exercise of political power is the only way to challenge the status quo and bring about meaningful change. Such efforts take guts and there is certainly no excess of such moxie among our politicians and bureaucrats.

So, yes, Mayor Laffey's style is aggressive. It is also the only way to effect real change in a corrupt and ineffective public sector. And it will take many more Mayor Laffey's for us to see real change become more than an occasional event.


With all that said, I personally find the Mayor's style to be more about himself than I would prefer to see. I think he would be more effective in the long run if he toned down some of that behavior. I will also predict that his ability to retain his natural aggressiveness, while simultaneously toning down the overt ego displays, will determine whether he can be an effective politician at more than a Cranston or small state level. To reinforce this point, consider what Peter Wallison wrote about Ronald Reagan:

...Reagan was more interested in the success of his ideas than in his own place in history. On his Oval Office desk was a sign: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit." For Ronald Reagan this was more than a motivational aphorism; it was a personal credo. It allowed him to forego debilitating concerns about his personal legacy and to focus exclusively on gaining acceptance for his ideas. In his farewell address to the nation, he said, "I won a nickname, 'The Great Communicator.' But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things."


By contrast, I find Senator Chafee to be an uninspiring Senator who vacillates between doing thoroughly odd things - like his vote in the 2004 Presidential election - and toeing the party line. His candidacy reminds me of the well-known phrase from The Sound of Music said by one of the von Trapp family children as Maria teaches them the song Do-Re-Mi: "...but it doesn't mean anything..." Nothing about Lincoln Chafee stands out as meritorious.


The actions of the national Republican party establishment to support Chafee feel like the phrase "he may be a [you fill in the word], but at least he is our [you fill in the word]." And that leads to the topic rarely discussed but in desperate need of public debate: Has the GOP Lost Its Soul? If you follow the links at the bottom of that posting, the magnitude of the problems with the Republican Congressional leadership becomes even more clear. Power has led them to spend our hard-earned monies like the Democrats used to do when they were the majority party in Congress. It is nothing less than pathetic, enhanced by the President's unwillingness to veto their outlandish spending. What a collapse from the heady days of the Contract with America when the national Republican Party offered American voters a distinctive vision by standing for something positive in domestic policy.

Finding additional people with Mayor Laffey's backbone is the real political party development challenge in Rhode Island. I find the state Republican party's focus on party discipline, in its attempt to pre-empt the possible competition between two radically different policy viewpoints, to be revolting. "Discipline to what?" is the better question for a party that unfortunately stands for nothing noteworthy or worth fighting for. These current practices will never transform it out of what amounts to a permanent minority status in Rhode Island.

We need leaders who paint in bold colors, not pastels.


What is the big deal if Senator Chafee loses in 2006? It might diminish the Republican’s power in the U.S. Senate. But since they have not distinguished themselves, some competition for majority control might force Republicans to return to offering meaningfully different policy alternatives to the Democrats. If they cannot do that, they deserve to lose their majority status.

I do not think Mayor Laffey should run for Chafee's U.S. Senate seat - but not for the reasons put forth by Laffey's opponents or the Republican Party establishment. Prior to returning to Cranston, Mayor Laffey was a highly successful top business executive - serving as President of a large regional securities firm while still in his 30's. Serving as Mayor of Cranston, particularly during its recent troubled years, gave him another executive leadership opportunity and played to his strengths. Being in the U.S. Senate is a completely different role and runs counter to everything that defines Laffey. It is a clubby atmosphere where no one person is expected or allowed to stand out much and where toeing the party line is often more important than standing firm on matters of principle. That is the reason that few Senators go on to be elected President; it is simply not a breeding ground for executive leadership. As a business executive myself, I think Mayor Laffey would be bored and frustrated by the role. He is too impatient to want to be stuck in a dead-end job.

Similarly, I think it would be a total waste of time for him to run for Lt. Governor of Rhode Island. It is a position of little significance or importance and would not allow him to display his executive leadership skills. It is utterly ridiculous - but not surprising - for the state Republican party to attempt to cajole Laffey into running for this position.

I believe he should either stay on as Mayor of Cranston to bring about further change or run for the State Treasurer's office where Paul Tavares has shown the ability to bring important issues like pension reform into the public debate. The pension crisis is far from over (see here, here, here, here, here) and it is both a state and national issue that will only get worse before it has any chance of getting better. The job would give Laffey a forum for leading a statewide public debate in conjunction with Governor Carcieri while also giving him a forum for contributing to the national debate on the issue.

At the same time, Laffey should take a larger reform message across the entire state and build the first real network of people committed to fixing the failed political status quo in Rhode Island. If he passes that test of leadership – which will require dealing with his previously mentioned weakness – Laffey will be in tremendous shape to run for Governor in 2010 and could be on his way to even bigger things over time.

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It's a dilemma - in Rhode Island and nationally.

I was inclined to support Steve Laffey ... then he pandered to the illegal immigrant lobby, and showed himself to be not a conservative or libertarian, but a "Laffertarian." In other words, it's all about Steve's ambition and ego. So now I say: "No habla Laffey."

When I think of Linc Chafee I keep hearing (in my mind) one of the songs from "The Wizard of Oz": "If I only had a brain." The guy is so far off the conservative farm that even the repugnant "lesser of two evils" rationalization won't work. A race between Chafee and Whitewash / Brownnose will really be nothing more than a Democrat primary.

So I'll probably just sit out the Senate race - if that means Whitewash or Brownnose become our next Senators, so be it. At least, after six long years, we MIGHT have a chance to vote for a real Republican candidate.

As for nationally, I'm hoping and praying that Roberts and the other Bush Supreme Court nominees are real conservatives. If Bush does that - and actually fights for them for a change - all else will be forgiven

There will be a lot to forgive since, other than "The War on Terror," George W. has actually been a liberal President. Can you say "Prescription Drug Welfare, err, Benefit"?

As for Congressional Republicans, they're now worse than the Democrats ever were, for at least the Democrats were open about their big spending proclivities. I won't contribute or work for the national Party. I'm tired of being "triangulated" and expected to support them simply because I have "no place else to go."

Not voting at all is not a solution, as it makes one irrelevant to the political parties' election calculations. I'm getting to the point where I'm really considering just voting against the incumbent in national races. If just 5-10 percent of the electorate started doing that the political strategists' calculations would all go out the window, the "incumbancy advantage" would be negated, and candidates might have to begin actually standing for something.

Posted by: Tom Wigand at September 2, 2005 6:32 PM